Five leaderships lessons from the Samurai for Product Managers

02 Apr, 2016
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We have covered several topics in the Product Samurai series that should make you a better product manager. But what if you are leading product management or run innovation within your enterprise? Here are five leadership lessons that make your team better.
“New eras don’t come about because of swords, they’re created by the people who wield them. ” ”• Nobuhiro Watsuki

1. Focus
One of the more interesting traits one develops in martial arts is the ability to see roughly 180 degrees, without losing sight on the direct opponent. The rationale being that on a battlefield it is important to not only see what is directly in front, but also around me. As a father of four, keeping an eye my offspring while focussing on something else is a godsend gift.
When I ran product management teams, one of my main concerns would be to create a current quarter priority list. This should be obvious but is surprisingly difficult. "what are our top three priorities this quarter?" If you do not have such a list, your team is likely to deviate in their roadmaps, releases and communications. It is vital that you set a clear (and limited) set of goals for your team, before they start planning. The biggest benefit being that you can use this list to defend against oppertunistic sales that would throw off your strategy. Have this list on your desk, written on the wall, put it in your internal email signature (okay, maybe not that) make sure everyone knows what your are doing.
2. Armour
Samurai armour is pretty strong but most of all designed to give the wearer mobility whilst still be able to absorb blows. So how good is your armour.
The best use of your status is to act as an armour for your team. Especially product management teams receive a lot of pressure from sales, support, customers, prospects, operations etc. Typically multiple times per day and everyone of these requests makes sense in their specific context.
As a result your team ends up spending most of their time defending the current strategy against a weave of seemingly good suggestions. Before you know it, they spend all their time in meetings rather than being out there and talk to customers.
Your priority list is the first line of defence. You can now reply with: “That’s a great idea, tell me more about the customer’s root issue… but we’ll need to put that into the backlog since it’s not one of our top two things for this quarter.”
The priorities list is an exclusive-or universe, if we add something, something else goes away. A Samurai can wield two swords (well according to Minamoto Musashi, I find more than one troublesome) and not three.
3. The budo belt system
When you are training in martial arts, the belt system is a great way to know what is expected of you. Every level indicates a limited set of techniques like throws, grappling, chokes, weapons etc. Which means it is clear for both the student and the environment what can be expected. We have set boundaries.
In Product Management we often fail to do so. Steve Johnson ( calls this the “product janitor” syndrome where everyone gets to decide what product managers are supposed to do, and the combined list is impossible.
The scrum teams will ask the product manager to be available 24/7 for clarifications, daily standup, continuous refinement and of course we need at least 2 sprints of fully refined stories in our backlog. Sales knows that product managers make the best sales support so they want the product managers to be on every new customer call and in every technical partnering meeting. By the way: everyone at your company works in Sales. Research and Innovation knows that the best way to get their ideas turned into products requires full commitment of one your team members. Marketing will hunt them down for webinars, podcasts, blogs, industry events, creation of pitches that are specific for market segments. Finally customer support desire triage on all the incoming bugs.
Individual product managers don’t have enough organizational leverage to fight back this job scope creep, so you need to set down the boundaries for your team. Just as with the belt system you will need to explain how much time you expect them to work on their respective duties. For example: “Spend ~50% with Development; ~30% with customers, prospects and market discovery; and 20% with organizational communications/planning. No unqualified sales calls: only train-the-trainer.” Don’t forget to take the heat when things get nasty and make sure everyone has a balanced load.
4. Inspire
We still see too many under-engaged development teams, complaining about wasted work and constantly changing priorities. Daniel Pink explained how people work and it’s not possible to force developers to work harder, but we can motivate them. We can get them excited about problems and emotionally connected to users.
We can inspire teams that they are working on what really matters to our customers. Do you think soldiers go in battle because it’s their job? no! they are inspired. Share your customers problems with the team, let them feel the pain, and before you know it engineers start working late because they love to solve meaningful problems.
5. Continuous learning
You don’t study martial arts, reach a certain level and stay there. It’s a continuous process to just upkeep what you know, continuous growth comes only with investment. Typically investment of a lot of time.
Make sure your product managers spend enough time in the field talking to real customers, but don’t stop there. Create a cross functional discovery team, (perhaps part-time to avoid ivory tower syndrome) with product management, UX specialist, a developer with rapid prototyping skills and perhaps a data scientist. Validate new product concepts with real customers. Or push for A/B testing of new features. C-level support for these teams is crucial, since her peers tend to value current-quarter deliverables above all else, and keep postponing real market learning for just another quarter or two.
Sound’s like a lot? leading in product management is about creating the right conditions for your team to be successful. I hope these five leadership lessons from the Samurai inspire you to be a better leader.

Want to learn more about using martial arts in product management? Go order the book from if you are in the Netherlands or Belgium or sign up to get the international edition.
The Product Manager's guide to Continuous Innovation


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